Sleep[ing Home]less in Seattle
This is another guest blog post from my sister, Libby, about her experiences working at a homeless shelter in Seattle. Enjoy! – Sarah
Before I start, I have to be very clear about something. I am writing about my personal experience while working at a homeless shelter. The purpose is only to show my own growth, from someone who lived (and still lives) a very comfortable life to someone who was forced to acknowledge the enormity of my own privilege. The examples I am writing about are not intended to be glib and are in no way a representation of each individual that came through the shelter or the circumstances that brought them there.
While reading my sister’s book* about her time in New York, I felt inspired to write about some of my time in Seattle. My first year in Seattle is what my former roommate jokingly describes as “the worst year of her life”.** Mostly because we barely knew one another, and I was extremely sleep-deprived and overly emotional.*** I would frequently come home from an overnight shift at the homeless shelter where I worked, awakening her as I collapsed in a pile of tears at the foot of her bed.
I had applied to work at the shelter through AmeriCorps, and I distinctly remember one of the questions from my phone interview because it is the most unusual interview question I have ever gotten. “What would you do if a transgender female guest wanted to use the women’s restrooms, but it made a female-bodied guest uncomfortable?”**** Apparently I had a good enough answer, because a week later I was on a plane with three suitcases, ready to start a new adventure.
My first overnight at the shelter, I was training with one of the regular volunteers. While he was writing the nightly report, I decided to do a walk-through of the sleeping area. It was on this first solo walk-through that I was unfortunate enough to witness a guest masturbating on his mat. All I could think at the time was, “There’s a bathroom 100 feet from where you’re sleeping. Why?” I learned over the next year that privacy is rare for those who are homeless.
A few months later, a different volunteer brought me what looked like a metal pipe wrapped in a handkerchief. It definitely looked drug-related, and I could tell from his tone that my suspicions were correct.
“We will need to talk about this during our meeting tonight,” he said.
Since I had absolutely no clue what he was holding in his hands, I wanted to at least pretend like I might have known what it was before someone asked me to describe it out loud, especially in a group of people that worked with homeless youth.
“I think it best that you be the one to talk about it, since you found it in the laundry,” was my reply.
Any drug paraphernalia found on the premises meant the loss of privileges for a week, including laundry and showers. It happened so rarely while I was there, but we all dreaded when it did, since it meant punishing everyone for one person’s actions.
“I found a crack pipe in the laundry tonight,” the volunteer said during our nightly staff/volunteer meeting.
My response? “Yes he did. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Despite a few of these experiences at the shelter, there were so many times when I was humbled while working with the guests. We frequently had to turn people away, since there was only space for 25 guests. On one of the coldest nights of the year, a guest asked if we could let his friend stay instead of him, since he had a couch he could “probably crash on.” This was not the first time someone made this request, regardless of whether they had any other options.
Throughout the year, I was challenged and had my privilege called out, and I grew as a human being. It was one of the best, hardest years for me. The biggest thing I learned during that year is that there is no difference between me and someone who is living on the streets, except that I have been given so many opportunities in my life, and that is often not the case for someone without shelter.
In my first winter back in the Midwest, there have been a number of days where the high temperature for the day has been well below zero, and at least one where the “feels like” temperature was -50 degrees for most of MN. It breaks my heart thinking that people have to figure out what they are going to do when it’s that cold. On these days, I send all of my positive thoughts to anyone that is without a home or shelter to go to.
*A little plug for Sarah’s book. I haven’t finished it yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying it, and have laughed out loud, sighed deeply, and felt shared heartache. If you ever have a chance to read it,♦ I would highly recommend it.
**We are now very good friends, and ended up living together for five of my years in Seattle.
***Those of you that know me well know that I could be described as an emotional person to begin with. Yikes.
****According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, it has been estimated that one in five people who are transgender experience homelessness at some time in their lives, and transgender people make up 20-40% of the homeless population.
♦Sarah here: Before you start asking where you can get a copy of my book, you should know that Libby read a copy of my (unpublished) thesis. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as it is published.